Morphic Field Theory, as posited by Rupert Sheldrake, is predicated on the idea that consciousness extends beyond the physical body into a field, analogous to an electrical or magnetic field. While this point may not ordinarily arise with artworks existing as physical objects, such as paintings or sculptures, the matter of consciousness as a field becomes rather different when the artwork is a performance in the public domain. This is certainly the case with ‘Test Run: Performance in Public’ at Modern Art Oxford.
‘Baby Ikki’ (1978), by Michael Smith, is presented as film footage of a performance on the streets of New York. We’re not only shown Smith’s Baby Ikki character, with brilliantly observed body movements, but also the responses of those present at the time of performance - from expressions of hilarity to evident bemusement, and something approaching anger on the part of a police officer who moves Baby Ikki off of the road, depositing him on the sidewalk.
The range of responses raises an interesting question about precisely where the performance took place: did it only happen in New York in 1978, or did some part of it occur differently for each observer within their own minds? Approaching the work from this wider perspective makes Baby Ikki a personal reflection for each viewer, rather than the more generic metaphor for humanity.
Something of this logic can also be seen in Serena Korda’s ‘W.A.M.A, The Work as Movement Archive’ (2012). Working with residents of Barton Hill, Bristol, which once provided the workforce for the Great Western Cotton Mill, Korda has documented the lost art of meemoing – the sign language through which mill workers communicated in a workplace too loud for speech. This archive of silent communication was translated into an index of dance movements, which was then choreographed into a ritualistic costume procession, a maypole dance and compelling film footage. Korda’s intention that this archive of movements should exist to be passed on to future generations is just as valuable as the performative act itself, prompting the unavoidable question: will a meemoing movement which meant a particular thing 50 years ago, come to signify a different thing 50 years from now?
‘W.A.M.A’ also explores muscle memory. If performance art can engage through a morphogenic field, are we as viewers to some extent sharing the labours of the cotton mill workers in more direct a way than we could reconstruct from still pictures or written descriptions? Conversely, does the fact of being observed in any way change the recollections of muscle memory for the performer? Korda’s poetic and delightfully puckish work could be said to examine the particular and expose qualities of the general.
By contrast, ‘The Dissolve’ (2014) by Jefford Horrigan examines the general, and presents us with our own individual qualities of the particular. Notions such as tables being turned, or having a place at the table, become animated and unsettled concepts as Horrigan approaches a table in a public space outside a train station, and after a moment of apparent consideration, stands the table on its end and begins to dance with it. Alongside the metaphoric implications, intended or unavoidably incidental, one of the most engaging qualities of this performance is its animism. In terms of what muscle memory shared through the morphogenic field might do, ‘The Dissolve’ (2014) has a potentially subversive, perhaps even revolutionary role of inspiring romance and poetry in our highly mechanised neo-liberal world.
The spirit of this extensive exhibition is apparent in the oxymoronic work of William Hunt. Some aspects of Hunt’s performances are rooted in well-established notions of what a performance is, whereas other elements appear to be the opposite, with Hunt deliberately making the act of performing difficult for himself. In the case of ‘Sjalfsskaparviti (A Self Created Hell)’, Hunt has climbed to the top of a stepladder on a shore with a guitar and appears in one image as holding a flare in each hand. In one sense this attracts attention to the pending performance but at the same time makes it impossible for him to play his guitar.
The act of self-sabotage could be seen as a socio-political metaphor, but as with performance work of all kinds, and perhaps particularly with Sheldrake’s Morphic Field Theory in mind, we might ask whether metaphors reveal themselves more strongly to certain people at certain times.
‘Breathing’ (1995) by Song Dong might be thought of as an example of this. A double photographic document shows the artist lying face down on icy ground in Tiananmen Square and through insisting on remaining there, he breathes a tiny melted crater into the ice. While Western media may present a rather specific set of associations with Tiananmen Square, we in the West are in no position to be smug, for a rapid descent into cynicism is palpably possible when Song Dong’s ‘Breathing’ becomes the first artwork encountered following Jeremy Deller’s ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ (2001).
In presenting the works of seventeen artists, each with poetic, subversive, sometimes elegiac and often playful approaches to performance work, ‘Test Run: Performance in Public’ at Modern Art Oxford appears to map the boundaries of self-censorship in the public domain. But perhaps it is we as viewers who are being tested by the performances, as much as the performances are being tested against a cultural taste of a gallery viewing public.